A symbolic journey of the tolls of dementia
Australia has been producing a slew of adept horror directors in recent years. Jennifer Kent burst onto the scene with her fabulous The Babadook (2014), and later with her harrowing sophomore entry The Nightingale (2019). Both films commented on different social aspects, from family strains to the treatment of indigenous people in Australia. New director Natalie Erika James has brought us haunted house movie Relic (2020).
Relic is the story of three generations of women. Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive to the countryside, outside of Melbourne, where Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) has disappeared. The duo reports the disappearance to the police as they also interrogate neighbors and comb the nearby woods. However, one day Edna casually reappears in the kitchen, in her nightgown and with dirty bare feet. Something is amiss in Edna, whose skin begins to turn black in decay, similarly her own house seems to be sprouting a parallel mold as well.
Relic is an incredibly subtle and symbolic film. Even though it is never mentioned once in the film, there is a clear allusion to the tolls that dementia can have on both the victim and the family of such as well. Soon the two younger women are unable to leave the house, becoming trapped as it’s layout changes, and Edna begins to change. The psychological entrapment that viewers feel with the film is incredibly achieved by Erika James, who is not afraid to have an incredible restraint. In fact, throughout much of the film and up to the finale, you wonder whether the twitches of clothes or the scraping noises are imagined or real. By holding back so much, Erika James allows for her larger message of the weight of her theme to take a hold of all viewers.
Relic also employs the incredibly capable Nevin as Edna, who never once appears to give in to a crazy-eyes performance, but instead tries to keep a balance between her disorientation and her motherly history. It is this complex balance keeps the film from caricaturing the difficulties of mental deterioration while also not becoming a pity fest. I was more disappointed with Mortimer who plays the lead role in the film. Mortimer has proven to be an incredibly capable and competent actress; however, I’ve always found that she has always kept her guard up as a performer. In any role I’ve seen the actress in, she’s always been very clearly “acting,” as if afraid to become vulnerable to both viewers and the characters she embodies. Because of this defensive performance style, I was never too sympathetic with the plight or emotional journey of Kay. Heathcote, on the other hand, has much less screen time, and yet she is able to embody the conflict that her character has in regard to Edna’s fate.
In the end, Relic proves to be an effective symbolism of dementia and the toll it can have on a family. Erika James is incredibly capable with her script and in the director’s chair, showcasing another growing and promising filmmaking talent. With so much restraint, however, Relic takes on a very slow pace that is only somewhat broken up by a claustrophobic finale and the short runtime (under 1hr and 30 mins). Nevin proves to be the film’s greatest emotional anchor, dealing with the hardest role in the film, while Mortimer isn’t able to sell the family pain as well, leading a core emotional pillar of the film to dissipate.